Thursday, November 19, 2015

Privacy and The Bad Math of Terrorism ... by gimleteye

In the United States, terrorism upended the stable equation of privacy and government surveillance of individuals. After 9/11, Americans felt shocked, threatened and angry. Congress passed the Patriot Act to enhance security of individual liberties despite provisions that guaranteed the opposite: that government and agencies would be granted unparalleled access to the digital world we inhabit and that touches nearly every aspect of our lives.

The net result is that Americans surrendered personal privacy in the war on terror. Since terrorism is an ideology and not a state, there is no military victory on the horizon to restore what the Constitution guarantees. Terrorism has changed us and our democracy.

Edward Snowden did a great service to the nation by exposing the extent to which the war on terror compromised individual rights. His revelations of government secrets detailed the extraordinary collusion by government with private corporations in data collection, violating the spirit if not the letter of the law.

Since the attack in Paris, there has been a rising chorus lead by the national security apparatus; data encryption and loopholes need even tighter control by government. What few have bothered to consider: that the failure of surveillance and government to detect the terror attack before it happened has called into question the worth -- and cost -- of many billions of dollars of taxpayer investment in the national security apparatus itself.

The national security apparatus is gargantuan. It is the largest employer in the nation's capitol -- from which I write these words. As a civilian, I have no idea how much security and surveillance is too much, how big is too big, or how close we are to losing legislative and legal and even executive branch control of an important military function.

The point about terrorism is that it is amorphous. Although there are many of us on the side of civilization, of values we describe as "Western", there are also those on the other side of our values who have their own logic to describe what is important to the organization of their families and society and who, in their most extreme manifestation, have convinced themselves that the only way to defend their values is to attack ours. On the other hand, within our own Western societies there are many people who don't accept values of the corporation or of laws that give corporations more protections than people, who won't adhere to normative behaviors, and who do in fact oppose the imposition of values they believe to be destructive of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our Constitution gives everyone rights to bear arms, but if they act to oppose the law, they are terrorists too.

There is no argument here against surveillance of individuals and states determined to use attacks on civilians to disrupt democratic freedoms and rights. There is, however, a mandate to be reasonable and for our elected representatives to understand that the obsession with surveillance turns government into a dog chasing its own tail.

The evidence shows that government agencies charged with intelligence gathering can, will and do eventually wrap up the spider webs of organization and activities of those who plan to do us harm and violence, whether that violence is an end in itself or a plan to lead to more and worse violence as the leadership of Daesh, or ISIL, want. But Americans and our elected leaders must acknowledge that endlessly tightening the noose around individual privacy is not going to prevent every act of determined thugs and murderers from leaking through.

There is a legitimate argument that leadership of the national security state are the last people our legislatures should empower to protect our democracy, and that there is a very significant risk to increasing their power. Certainly thanks and appreciation go to the legions who are coordinating to capture terrorists in our midst, but how we organize ourselves to protect our liberties is the original point of democracy. We lose sight of that fact at a very significant risk.

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